Parenting advice can come from many sources. Most of them will tell you not to compare your child to others and will encourage you to appreciate each individual child. At the same time, there is a plethora of printed material describing typical developmental milestones listing expected accomplishments by chronological age. Besides such standardized measurements it is hard not to compare your child to other children when there is an obvious discrepancy in their abilities. This becomes increasingly apparent when a child is a late talker.
If you have a child who is not talking or is saying very little, it becomes more of an issue the older he gets. This is especially puzzling if you have other children who easily developed language skills in line with the developmental timetables, but this child for some reason is not talking much. As a speech/language pathologist with years of experience working with children, I am going to share tips that I think children would communicate to us if they could.
- Have my hearing checked. If I’m not hearing you clearly, I won’t talk like you or understand all the things you want me to do. Fluid in my ears might go away, but while it’s there I can’t hear normally and I’m missing the opportunity to hear some of what is going on around me. If I have any kind of hearing loss, the sooner I get treatment the better.
- Encourage me to watch your face as you talk. When I watch your face, I get many visual cues. I can watch what you do with your mouth, teeth, and tongue when you say things. If I don’t naturally look at you when I talk, encourage me by calling my name to direct my attention. If that doesn’t pull me in, try holding toys and objects up close to your mouth so when my gaze follows them it will also be within visual range of all your facial movements and expressions. Not only will this help me learn sounds and words, it will show me some of the aspects of nonverbal communication.
- Play turn-taking games with me. I may be a long way from having conversations with you, but you can still teach me the foundation for back-and-forth exchanges. Show me how to take turns rolling a car down a ramp or putting blocks in a can. Make sounds into a cardboard tube and then hand it to me so I know it’s my turn. Any action or vocalization that we can do back and forth is fine. You are helping me get the idea that I do something and then you do something. These interactions are the beginnings of “conversations”, even though I may not have many words yet.
- Imitate what I say and do. When you playfully imitate my actions, it grabs my attention because you are tuned in to me. I love hearing you say the sounds I make just the way I say them! This is one of the ways I know you are trying to relate to me on my level, and it is fun for me to watch and hear you playing like I do. You can encourage me to imitate what you say and do, just as you are imitating me. Start with what I am doing, and then change it a little to challenge me. If I say “bah”, see if I can imitate “bah-bah” or “boo”. This is a great way to try and expand my repertoire of sounds.
- Speak in shorter sentences. I am much more likely to imitate single words and short phrases than an entire sentence. I may understand full sentences and you can use them with me as well. Just remember, when you want me to talk I need fewer words to imitate.
- Wait for me to respond. It may take me a little while to process what I’ve heard and to then come up with a response. Adults tend to fill my silences by repeating what they have said, and then I have to process even more information. Try counting slowly to 10 in your mind before you prompt me again. It won’t be easy for you at first, but it will help me a lot.
- Model sounds and words for me. If I am not making many sounds or words, model simple sounds like p, b, t, d, and m. These are the earliest developmental sounds for most children and they are sounds that let me see the changes you make with your mouth. If I try to say something but I don’t pronounce it clearly, don’t always ask me to say it again. Instead, let me hear you repeat the word as it should be said. I just might decide to try that word again as I practice talking.
- Give me options. If I am really struggling to communicate, talk to a speech therapist for some ideas. Sign language can be a temporary way to bridge the gap between what I understand and what I am able to express. Another option would be to allow me to point to pictures to tell you what I want or need. Technology offers a lot of options. Even though I may not need to use an alternative method of communication for long, it can help my frustration when I’m not able to convey my thoughts.
- Encourage my attempts. Talking is not easy for me, and I need lots of encouragement to keep trying. Even if you can’t tell what I’m trying to say, I will know that you care when you listen and encourage me.
- Give me a reason to talk. If you anticipate my needs I have little motivation to use words or signs. Older siblings might try to help by speaking for me, but I need to learn how to express myself. If I can’t come up with a word or I just point to things, model a word for me to imitate.
These strategies may feel unnatural at first, but the more you do them the more automatic they will become. Do these activities throughout your daily routine, and make it fun and enjoyable. If you have tried these tips for a few weeks and haven’t seen any changes, or if you need more ideas to try contact a speech/language pathologist who can coach you as you help your child learn to communicate more effectively.
Melinda Boring has been married to Scott for over 28 years and has three homeschooled children. Her 25 yr. old son and 23 yr. old daughter graduated from home school in 2006 and her 19 yr. old daughter graduated from home school in 2011. Two of her children and her husband have been diagnosed with AD/HD. The children also deal with auditory processing disorders and sensory processing challenges. The name “Boring” just doesn’t fit this family, and Melinda shares many humorous moments in her speaking and writing endeavors. Melinda is the author of Heads Up Helping and has been a contributing author to multiple publications. She is a workshop presenter with a passion for helping struggling learners and providing practical strategies, compassion, and understanding for those with special needs. Melinda is also a speech/language pathologist with over 28 years experience and the owner of Heads Up, a company with products for those who learn differently. You can find her blog at the Heads Up website, where she writes as “Heads Up Mom”.